I’ll start with my disclaimer: I am a half-hearted supporter and former follower of the paleo diet. Even so, I found myself agreeing with a good bit of what Marlene Zuk has to say regarding the rise of ‘paleofantasies,’ a term she seems to define as the
“idea that our modern lives are out of touch with the way human beings evolved and that we need to redress the imbalance…it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors. A corollary to this notion is that we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene, like keeping an eye out for cheaters in our small groups, and bad at things we didn’t, like negotiating with people we can’t see and have never met.”
For some insight on just how far the paleo lifestyle can go, check out:
Now back to our article. My first contention goes against Zuk’s general definition of what the paleo movement is really focused on. I was introduced to the paleo diet through a general interest in fitness (every single CrossFit gym advocates paleo). The general argument isn’t that we should radically alter our lives to better replicate a romanticized notion of early hominid life, it’s rather the idea that we are healthier when engaging in certain activities that elicit better gene expression. For example, unless you belong to the very small section of the population adapted to grains or dairy, it’s best to avoid those foods and eat plants and animals instead (although we evolved to handle a broad diet, so you can still eat them if you desire). Paleo lifestyles also advocate exercise in the form of ‘functional movement,’ which can be considered walking, sprinting, gymnastics, sport, and basic weight lifting. We essentially don’t want to see someone going to the gym to burn 300 calories on the treadmill, then hopping on the bicep curl machine, and calling that fitness.
That’s how my paleofantasy goes, and it has decent support from prominent strength and conditioning coaches such as Charles Poliquin, Mark Rippetoe, and Greg Glassman. However, there are plenty of points Zuk makes that should be considered, particularly with an eye for the vapid money-whoring buzzwords that the monstrosity of modern marketing will soon be touting out to millions of gullible shoppers. Zuk only briefly touches on this, “Newspaper articles, morning TV, dozens of books, and self-help advocates promoting slow-food or no-cook diets, barefoot running, sleeping with our infants, and other measures large and small claim that it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors.” But I think it’s a trend worth examining further. Can’t we all imagine a not-so-distant future where grocery foods contain labels such as ‘paleo’ and ‘primal’ are touted alongside the vegan, vegetarian, and ten different variations of ‘organic’ labels? Where Dr. Oz (who, by the way, is a huge promoter of pseudoscience and general idiocy) supports the latest paleo-endorsing author whose core message (like every other diet writer) is ‘it’s not your fault for being fat,’ in front of hordes of unhealthy housewives? Where the ideas of avoiding processed grains and sticking to basic exercise are co-opted by some ridiculous hippie-colon-cleansing-in-tune-with-your-inner-energy movement and companies start selling a bunch of silly weight loss supplements incorrectly branded as paleo. The whole thing terrifies me. The hipster in me doesn’t want to see something that holds a soft spot in my heart get bastardized by this country’s health trend sensationalism.
And for the most part, Zuk’s main thesis isn’t anything I’ve written about so far. The idea of evolution having different rates of effect brings a new level of examination to this subject (and for a math major, makes evolution much more interesting). So if evolution does happen faster than we thought, what does that mean for our adaption and our domesticates? Can animals be domesticated faster than we previously believed? Does this add another factor to consider when examining and comparing the quality of various domesticates? Would such a factor be enough to either support or dent Diamond’s theory of domesticate geography influencing societal dominance?
And how quickly and to what degree can humans as a species change? Maintaining a tolerance to dairy (especially cow milk) throughout adulthood is one thing, but I seriously doubt we will ever evolve a metabolic system that can utilize refined carbohydrates well.Tolerate seems like a possibility, but beneficial use? Here’s the thing, man-made refined carbs are terrible for you. They’re garbage. Milk is natural, with growth hormone and a decent macro nutrient ratio. Fun fact – cow’s milk contains the same kind of growth hormone as human milk, essentially putting it just a step below anabolic steroids for facilitating muscle growth.
Zuk makes a convincing argument against our growing paleofantasies, particularly with the research she references throughout her piece. The discovery that evolution has it’s own rate seems completely obvious and intuitive, yet so many public authorities regard it as an ancient and minor force in today’s world. Despite Zuk’s argument, I still contend there are some very good aspects of examining the science behind ‘paleo’ habits for a healthier life. If you’d like to learn more about the fitness side of the paleo movement, I’d recommend you check out Robb Wolf, a former competitive weightlifter, gym owner, evolutionary biologist, and author of The Paleo Solution. Beyond that, the early articles found in the CrossFit Journal are useful as well. I still fall slightly on the paleo side, because I’ve seen the science used by those who argue against Zuk, but paleofantasies certainly seem to be a very real phenomena.